As I said earlier, there is much Kashmiris make with rice. Besides being the staple on our plate it is also our preferred ingredient when it comes to celebrations of all kinds. All auspicious occasions begin with rice in some avatar or the other. Barring one sweet made with dry fruits all Kashmiri desserts have rice as the main ingredient. [Therein lies a lesson for all of us to look at statistics with a sharp eye - Kashmiri cuisine has 3.5 desserts in all!]
Kheer is the offering of choice for most Goddesses. When a sweet offering will not fit the bill, taher is cooked to mark the happy occasion. Similarly, cooking and eating ver marks the beginning of important celebrations such as weddings and yagnopavit ceremonies.
Rice gruel is indeed the comfort food of all of Asia! Chinese have congee, Koreans and Thai have jook, Malaysians and Indonesians their bubur, South Indians their ghanji/kanji, and we have ver. But if you think ver is some insipid bland gruel you are sadly mistaken!
Ver is a delicious rice porridge that gets its flavour and name from the unique Kashmiri spice-blend called veri masala. Veri masala is a mix of spices (hing and Kashmiri red chillies predominating) and urad dal flour, mixed together with mustard oil, and shaped into thick discs with a hole in the center. The spice cakes are then dried in the sun and stored for later use.
The pounding together of the spices and perhaps, also the process of sun-drying creates a unique complexity of flavours that is more than the sum of its parts; the spice mix cannot be substituted with an instant mix of the ingredients. You will have to rely on a Kashmiri friend to source it. In Delhi veri masala and all other ingredients unique to Kashmiri cuisine, including dried eggplant, quince, and bottle gourds, can be found at the Durga Masala Store at INA Market.
I learned to cook ver from my maasi (mother’s sister) when she made it on my son’s yagnopavit ceremony a few years ago. There is a vegetarian and a non vegetarian version of ver. The vegetarian version uses walnuts for garnish and texture while in the non vegetarian version pieces of goat intestine do the job. While I am not too fond of the idea of eating the chopped up intestine of any animal, I love this dish too much and have on many occasions swallowed the animal parts without protest. I did what I had to do. If that is what made it taste the way it did, so be it…
Imagine my shock when I tasted the doone (walnut) ver and found it to have the same taste as the one with the chewy rubbery pieces of intestine! Yes, intestine is absolutely optional and has no bearing on the flavour. Just as well.
Those of you who have been patiently hanging on to a carefully cling-wrapped pungent piece of this spice for months :-) – this recipe is for you. Besides this is the best weather to enjoy it in; cold winter evenings and a hot steaming bowl of ver. Perfect.
3/4 C short grain rice
3 T (or more) mustard oil
pinch of hing (asafoetida)
1 t shah zeera (not caraway)
1 t Kashmiri red chilli powder
1 t veri masala
1/2 C chopped walnuts
Pick over rice. Wash in a couple of changes of water and soak for 20 minutes.
Heat mustard oil in a heavy pan till it is smoking. Add hing followed by shah jeera. Now add the Kashmiri chilli powder. Stir and (to prevent the chilli from scorching) quickly add the soaked rice and about three cups of water. Add salt and bring to a boil. Simmer and cook, stirring every now and then to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom. The rice grains will start to soften and break apart as they cook. Add more water as needed – the consistency should be that of a creamy porridge.
When the rice has turned soft and creamy add the veri masala (break a piece off of the disc and crush to powder). Cook for a few minutes to allow the spices to be incorporated. Stir in the chopped walnuts and remove from heat immediately. Serve hot.
Note: Do not cook any further after adding the walnuts as the oil from the nuts can make the ver off-tasting.